Recent Commonplace Entries


“A Harvard graduate who was inspired by the ideas of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, Ms. Jin is also aggressively pro-worker. She has made it clear in podcasts and her Substack newsletter that creators should get the same rights as other workers. Among the ideas she has championed is a ‘universal creative income,’ which would guarantee creators a base amount of money to live on.” (on the investor Li Jin, from NYT, September 2)

“The beauty of science is that you know where you start from, but you never know where youwill end up.” (Nobel laureate Edmond H. Fischer, from his NYT obituary, September 3)

“Unfortunately, out of all the people in the world to whom the authorities might have turned to solve the problem, they chose highway engineers. In my experience, the last people you want trying to solve any problem, but especially those involving roads, are highway engineers. They operate from the principle that while no problem can ever truly be solved, it can be spread over a much larger area.” (Bill Bryson, in The Road to Little Dribbling, Chapter 7)

‘America has two principal ways to receive formal adulation. Either you single-handedly take out a German machine-gun nest while carrying a wounded buddy on your back at a place called Porkchop Hill or Cemetery Ridge, in which case you get the Congressional Medal of Honor, or you buy society’s admiration by paying for a hospital wing or a university library or something along those lines. You don’t add something to your name, as in Britain, but rather add your name to something. The warm glow of unwarranted prestige is just the same in both cases. The difference is that in America the system produces a hospital wing; in Britain, you just get a knobhead in ermine.” (Bill Bryson, in The Road to Little Dribbling, Chapter 16)

“I pulled out a notebook in the food court and began to list all the pleasant Britannic things I could think of, randomly, as they occurred to me:

Boxing Day

Country pubs

Saying ‘you’re the dog’s bollocks’ as an expression of endearment or admiration

Jam roly-poly with custard

Ordnance Survey maps

I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue (a popular and hilarious radio program)

Cream teas

The 20p piece

June evenings, about 8 p.m.

Smelling the sea before you see it

Villages with ridiculous names like Shellow Bowels and Nether Wallop”

(Bill Bryson, in The Road to Little Dribbling, Chapter 26)

“Hell, everyone knows that an ugly guy with a good line gets the chicks.”  (Jean-Paul Belmondo, from his NYT obituary, September 7)

“The problem with Australians is not that so many of them are descended from convicts but that so many of them are descended from prison officers.” (Clive James, according to Alexander Downer, in the Spectator, August 28)

“Saying that Mr. Biden rejects church teaching could make it sound like he is merely disobeying the rules of his religious group. But the church’s teaching about the sanctity of life is true.” (resolution by Notre Dame University’s Faculty for Life, quoted by Linda Greenhouse in NYT, September 12)

“History shows us that it’s not about failure of intelligence, it’s about the limits of intelligence. When the Soviet Union crumbled, when Libya collapsed, when the actual moment came in Afghanistan, intelligence hadn’t failed. It was just limited, as it always is at the very end.” (UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, interviewed in the Spectator, September 4)

“At Yalta, he [Roosevelt] treated Stalin as if he too had been at Groton.” (Thomas Blaikie, in review of Michael Knox Beran’s WASPS: The Splendor and Miseries of an American Aristocracy, in Literary Review, September)

Blobs and communities

“A lot of people who are proud members of the foreign policy community would object to the phrase [the ‘Blob’]” (Hal Brands, the Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, quoted in NYT, September 17) 

“I recall that one of my first editors, the very sober Max Hastings, felt it necessary to ask a journalist in an interview whether he had a drink problem. The candidate looked at his watch and replied ‘No, too early for me – it’s not yet 12: but don’t let me stop you’.” (Martin Ivens in TLS, September 3)

“Fiction requires truth-telling, whereas in a biography one can make things up.” (Peter Ackroyd, according to Craig Brown, in TLS, September 10)

On Experiments

“Yes, I believe it was worthwhile . . . .  I thought – and still think – that the communist experiment (and it always was an experiment) was worthy trying. It was a very noble experiment. And had it succeeded, it would of course have been a great step forward for humanity.” (George Blake, interviewed by Hans Olink in 1999, as quoted by Xan Smiley in review of Simon Kuper’s Spies, Lies, and Exile: The Extraordinary Story of Russian Double Agent George Blake, in New York Review of Books, September 23)

‘The American Experiment; Dialogues on a Dream’, by David M. Rubenstein (History Book Club selection, September)

“The jury is still out on those questions. How they are answered will determine the future not only of western universities but also of that astonishing spiritual-political experiment that is western democratic liberalism.” (Roger Kimball, in September Spectator World, p 39)

“As a citizen, D came within the scope of legal provisions for the punishment (death, without trial, on simple proof of identity) of soldiers deserting abroad, even in peacetime. He knew all about the ruling psychoses, for he was standing up against them. The notion that a man might bow out without betraying, as faithfully as it were humanly possible (the vagueness of that formula!), faithful to the extreme of objecting to the intolerable, and its destruction of us; that a man might withdraw only to vanish into insignificance, well, any of his chiefs willing to believe that would be deemed a lunatic, or an accomplice to be liquidated without delay.” (From The Secret Agent, Part 1 of Victor Serge’s Unforgiving Years)

“Historians fabricate greatness, as they call it, because they are mediocrities with lame imaginations who can only plod along the beaten track, and they’re cowed by the cudgel and their own mediocrity into shoring up the cult of established power  . . .  Power has the same hold over the tyrant as anybody, because he has seized the levers of power just like a burglar making off with the Grand Seal of State.” (From The Secret Agent, Part 1 of Victor Serge’s Unforgiving Years)

“Our work consists in deciphering enemy intentions, through enemies who are often themselves ignorant of them . . .

War is a great game of psychology. The enemy calculates and so do we. Strength only enters as a function of these calculations. An error is sometimes the product of a flawless but excessively linear calculation which fails to allow for the unstable, the unknowable, the irrational, call it energetic or mindless folly . . .  Hence reverses and defeats are the penalty of error. This enemy is conducting a technicians’ war. He is convinced of his superiority, and with good cause. His machines are better and more numerous., his special forces are better trained, more numerous and organized than ours, its officer class more educated. I would even grant that its winter equipment makes a mockery of ours  . . . But winter is on our side. We are winter men  . . .” (Potapov, in The Flame Beneath The Snow, Part 2 of Victor Serge’s Unforgiving Years)

“But the pillagers of the wrecks that were once sovereign states, the painted-over citizens of the sham democracies, the traffickers entrusted with profitable economic missions, the spies and the disinformation merchants, these by contrast know all the rules of the game. They fly at whim across the oceans as though the laws of mechanics and the strategic map of the world were theirs by rights (which they probably are). In this still-mysterious mutation of a civilization, it may be that such hybrid beings, their vitality all the more exacerbated in its final upsurge, will prevail for some time  . . .” (from Journey’s End, Part 4 of Victor Serge’s Unforgiving Years)

“Sooner or later, the time will come when Private Snodgrass must advance straight to the front.” (General Wavell, according to Lt.-Gen. Sir Frederick Morgan, in Overture to Overlord, p 79)

“As a practical matter, our book outlines two criteria that could be used to establish eligibility for receipt of reparations. First, the government could impose a lineage standard: An individual would need to have at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the United States. Second, there is a need for an identity standard: Reparations recipients would need to show that, for at least 12 years before the enactment of a reparations plan or establishment of a study commission for reparations, they had self-identified as Black, Negro, African American or Afro-American. This criterion would prevent someone who is living as white from suddenly claiming eligibility for reparations when there is a monetary gain to be had from being the descendant of an enslaved person.” (William A. Darity Jr, professor of economics and the Samuel Dubois Cook distinguished professor of public policy at Duke University, in NYT, September 26)

“A resident of Ely for seven years remarks that to be accepted as a local you’d have to have lived there since the time of Hereward the Wake.” (Piers Brendon, from review of David Kynaston’s On the Cusp: Day of ’62 in Literary Review, September)

“In spite of Bourne-Paterson’s disgust, I talked to our psychiatric expert. On the whole, I must confess, I did not find his opinions over-helpful, for while they were careful and explicit and often profoundly interesting, they equally often seemed to me to miss the points over which were were specifically concerned. I never reached that stage of proficiency where I was able to evaluate the importance of the presence or absence of a mother-fixation in the selection of an agent for a particular mission. On this occasion, however, perhaps because he said what I had hoped he would, I was impressed by what he told me. ‘Lots of people are nervous of jumping out of balloons’, he said, ‘where they could fairly easily be persuaded to bale out of an aircraft.’” (Maurice Buckmaster, in They Fought Alone, p 72)

“In England we find it easier to credit our leaders with muddle rather than Macchiavellian cunning; on the continent it is the other way round.” (Jean Overton Fuller, in The German Penetration of SOE, p 178)

2 Responses to Recent Commonplace Entries

  1. Michael

    Not sure where to find on the map “his . . . redbrick house at Purely with its back-garden tennis-court”. Just south of Corydon, perhaps? And a few other typos this month, which are I believe abhorred by you.

    • coldspur

      Thank you, Michael. That damned autocorrect feature, I am sure. I have rebuked my Chief Editor, Thelma. But I am responsible: the buck stops here.

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